This piece is based on a true story and is dedicated to my mom, who was the first person I recall that made reference to God. There is a summary after the story that explains the true events, and the fictional elements added.
By Jon Moray
The year was 1971. It was a sunny, mid-morning summer in the Bronx, and six-year old Jonny was sitting on a chair, looking out the opened window of the fifth floor tenement his family resided in on 172nd Street. The child perused the sea of humanity shuffling on their way, and waited for the elevated trains to rumble by above 3rd Avenue. The train’s alarming audio invasion at all hours was insomnia’s best friend. The usual people watchers unfolded their chairs and took their places in front of building entry stoops to spy life from a street view. A few neighbors from across the street were taking their laundry off clothes racks that hung from the exterior fire escapes. Sometimes, if the weather cooperated, they would drag mattresses out onto the escapes and enjoy their evening under the stars.
As Jonny surveyed life down on the street below, he noticed a dog lying on it’s side in the street, at the corner of 3rd Avenue and 172nd Street. There was a giant stone at the corner lot of that intersection that all the neighborhood kids would climb up and play on. That day, some of them stood at the top of the rock with a birds-eye view of the scene below.
“Ma, look at the dog in the street. Is it dead,” Jonny asked, with eyes shifting between the dog and the kids pointing at it. His mom shot a glance and frowned. She saw a pedestrian approach the dog and push at it, without any movement from the animal.
“Yes, Jonny, I think it is dead,” she answered, using her hand as a fan to combat the scorching heat. “It’ll be okay,” she reassured him, with a gentle rub of his shoulder and a kiss on his forehead.
“What’s going to happen to it,” Jonny asked, leaning forward.
His mom’s eyebrows raised, reflected a moment, and replied the first thing that came to mind. “God will take it up to heaven,” she said, searching his eyes for a reaction.
Jonny looked away, with a lack of understanding, but with genuine concern for the dog. Jonny overheard his parents talking about God and heaven on many occasions, but this was the first time it was conveyed to him. He had a warm feeling an invisible someone was always looking after him and he reasoned it must be God. He pondered heaven for a moment and curiosity got the best of him. “Heaven? How,” Jonny asked.
His mother pursed her lips in thought. She wasn’t expecting to provide an explanation for her answer. Finally, she uttered, “The dog will float up to heaven.”
Jonny’s eyes opened the size of silver dollars, as wild thoughts of seeing the feat swirled in his head. Jonny hopped off the chair and rushed toward her. “Can I go downstairs and hang out with the kids on the rock. I can see the dog float up to heaven from there,” he asked, while tugging at her arm.
“No. The last time you played on that rock you fell off and bruised your elbow, remember?” she said, wagging a finger toward him.
Jonny nodded, but the anticipation of something magical brought a beam to his face, as he took his place back on the seat by the window. Horns honking from street cars, an occasional argument for an open parking spot, and double parked delivery vehicles were part of the normal visuals for Jonny peering out the window on 172nd Street. Normal, except for the dog that laid motionless in the street that day.
A blur of pedestrians ambled by the fallen animal, some glanced over, but most were focused on catching the train. Jonny locked in on the dog, waiting, wanting to see it levitate above the sky. His imagination got the best of him as he called out to his mom he thought he saw it start to float.
His mom now had the problem of getting out of a little white lie she told her son. Her eyes volleyed between Jonny and the dishes she was cleaning. She mentally planned a way to get him away from the window before the animal control truck arrived.
Jonny continued his watch, as trains roared by in both directions. Every day, he would count the trains as they went by, but today, he took a break from math. The emerging melody from the ice cream truck coming up the street did little to sway his focus on the dog. Usually, the truck’s tune would have Jonny begging and pleading for a cold treat. The kids climbed off the rock and ran to catch the ice cream truck. Jonny’s focus was briefly broken by the kid’s decision to leave the main event. “Hey, you’re going to miss the miracle,” Jonny yelled down to them. The kids ignored his warning, and caught the truck just before it turned onto Fulton Avenue. Jonny rendered a shake of his head and returned his attention back to the dog.
“Mom, Officer O’Brien is looking at the dog,” Jonny announced. His Mom broke away from putting dishes in the cupboard and saw the policeman gently poking his Billy club at man‘s best friend. Officer O’Brien duties included walking the beat on 172nd Street, up 3rd Avenue, and several other adjacent streets. The policeman always seem to catch Jonny throwing a rubber ball against the buildings and sometimes hitting windows. O’Brien was soon joined by Saul, the owner of the deli across the street, and they exchanged pleasantries while spying the dead animal. Saul was always dressed in white and always sported a condiment stained apron. His signature ‘Bon Appetit’ after ringing up a customer was well known to the community. Jonny’s mom frequented the deli to buy cold cuts for the family and on occasion, buy a foot-long ham and cheese hero for his dad.
“I guess Officer O’Brien and the deli man are waiting to see it float up to heaven just like me,” Jonny exclaimed, with sparkling eyes. Anticipation built, as evident of the fidgeting in his seat that released a squeaking sound from the chair.
His mom’s face wrinkled with anxiety that now accompanied erratic lip biting. She checked the clock and decided it was close enough for Jonny’s lunch. “Peanut butter and jelly with milk?” asked mom, retrieving the jars from the pantry.
“I’m not hungry,” answered Jonny, without losing focus on the dog.
“Come to the table. It’s time to have lunch. You know you can’t eat at the window,” she said, firmly. Jonny resigned to his mother’s command. “Wash your hands first,” she added, pointing towards the bathroom. Jonny did as his mother instructed while she peeked out the window, tapping her fingers on the ledge, and hoping the dog would disappear before her little boy would return.
Jonny wolfed down both halves of the sandwich, gulped down the milk, and ran back to the window, relieved he didn’t miss the miracle. Officer O’Brien still kept watch over the deceased mutt, twirling his club in a Ferris wheel like motion, and intermittingly, visually patrolling the opposite end of the intersection. He made idle conversation with the people passing by, relaying the story with the dog until his responses became scripted. Otherwise, it was a slow day for the patrolman, which in his profession, is a good day.
As Jonny continued his frozen stare, he noticed the fire hydrant that was twenty feet away from the corner of the intersection. “I guess the kids won’t be opening up the hydrant with Officer O’Brien around,” he commented to his mom.
“Today is certainly a good day to play in the water splash,” she answered, wiping her brow of sweat made by the heat and the problem of filling Jonny’s ears with false pretenses. She turned up the radio and adjusted the antenna to offset the train’s awful squealing. A song called “Don’t Pull Your Love” played on the radio, as Jonny hummed along.
Mom, does Elvis sing that song?” Jonny asked.
“No, Jonny, I don’t know who sings it, but I know it isn’t Elvis,” his mom answered, as Jonny bobbed his head in rhythm with the lyrics. He ignored the heat that beaded sweat on his head and soaked his shirt. He basked in the moment of mystery, with a sentiment that it would be a memory that he would not soon forget. Time passing and the time spent waiting did little to deter him from his post at the window. He was planted in the seat for as long at it would take.
“Maybe Dad will make it home from work in time to see this,” he whispered to himself. His mother was defenseless to his perseverance, and she knew she would have to address the issue.
Suddenly, thunder rolled in the distance. Droplets of rain now emanated from the skies, with a misty fog in tow. Gradually, the fog stiffened and masked Jonny’s view of the corner where the dog lay. His mother closed the window to shield him from precipitation as Jonny kept staring, squinting his eyes to combat his now limited visibility. The storm and fog lasted several minutes, but Jonny peered on with his nose pressed against the window. Questions of why it had to rain now and the fog dominated his thoughts, as his hopes of seeing something spectacular waned. His mother’s heart was torn by seeing the disappointment in his eyes. She wrestled with telling him the truth but decided to wait until after the storm.
The rain gradually came to a halt, the fog slowly lifted, and the dog was gone. The sun appeared, bright as it was before the rain. Jonny stared at the now empty spot where the dog once was, his eyes shifted back and forth, as if they powered the wheels of reason in his head. Officer O’Brien stood scratching his head, and looking about, perplexed, as Saul quickly approached. The duo’s animated mannerisms told the story of curiosity, disbelief, and astonishment. A shrug of his shoulders was his only answer to any question asked by Saul and other people that gathered around them.
“Mom, God took the dog up to heaven,” Jonny smiled. “Maybe the storm was God showing his feelings for the animal,” said Jonny, nodding his head slowly while lost in deep reflection.
His mom took Jonny in her arms. His childish wisdom brought her to proud tears. “It’s a miracle. Maybe the dog did float up to heaven,” she reasoned, looking up to the skies.
Jonny contemplated on his view of the occurrence, his imagination whirling with wonder. He pondered God, heaven, the dog, and death. He was about to ask his mom a question, but stopped himself, as if he were editing the query in his head. Finally, he spoke. “Mom, will I float up to heaven in a fog when I die?”
His mom drew a deep breath, chuckled at her boy’s unending curiosity, and answered, “Ask your father when he gets home.”
This piece is based on a true story, with me being Jonny. The policeman and deli owner are fictional along with the storm that masked the dog’s disappearance. Parts of the stone on the corner lot are still there to this day, with low-income housing built around it and on top. There are also openings in the front of the building to display the leftover stone. The elevated train system that ran above 3rd Avenue was demolished in 1973. The song, “Don’t Pull Your Love” by Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds is a vivid memory that provides a soundtrack that takes me back to that moment whenever I hear the song. My lasting memory of this event is my mom telling me the dog would float up to heaven. One moment I am waiting by the window for what seemed like forever and then the dog vanishing the next, without ever learning how it was removed from the street corner.